Why comedy clubs are having the last laugh...

The audience enjoying a comedy show
The audience enjoying a comedy show

Funny-man Ross Noble to perform at Portsmouth Guildhall in 2018

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If laughter is the best medicine, CHRIS BROOM found out why we should be very healthy in this part of the world.

But it seems we have no shortage of them in this part of the world – as the current rise in popularity of comedy clubs will attest.

Not so long ago in Portsmouth, we had The Wedgewood Rooms’ comedy club, a few shows at the sadly defunct The Cellars and occasional visits from bigger stars to the Kings Theatre or Portsmouth Guildhall... and that was about it.

Now, as well as The Wedge we have nights in The Spinnaker Cafe, The Fat Fox and Drift Bar. The South Coast Comedian Of The Year competition covers everything from Cornwall to Kent and is based in Portsmouth – this year it had its most successful year ever at its new home, the New Theatre Royal. Even the Historic Dockyard trialled a night last month.

Just beyond the city, we also have the enormously successful Comedy Allstars in Horndean, Laughter Live at Ferneham Hall and Shenanigans at the Ashcroft Arts Centre, both in Fareham.

Reigning WOW247 Best Comedy Award winner James Alderson has been a key figure in the local scene. He started Comedy Allstars four years ago and it can now claim to be the biggest club in the region, regularly attracting 400 punters.

James Alderson. Picture by Alan Kemp

James Alderson. Picture by Alan Kemp

When he first decided to take the plunge into stand-up, James was dismayed by the lack of clubs in the area.

‘I went on Google to see what else was around. The Wedgewood Rooms came up and that was it. There was nothing else. There was an open mic night for poetry and music in Southampton, which was no good for me, and then I found one in Worthing, and that was my first gig.’

Frustrated with the local scene, James decided to start putting on his own nights – first was Havant Leisure Centre, then briefly Waterlooville Community Centre before settling on Horndean Technology College.

‘When I started the clubs, I just wanted to do something locally just because I was lazy,’ he says, only partly joking, ‘I didn’t want to travel 200 miles to do a gig.

If you go to see a band, you want to know what kind of music it is – I think people are now starting to think the same way about comedy

Joe Wells, stand-up comic

‘You go all over, and I saw good, popular comics struggling with that. I didn’t want to starve to death as a very talented comedian,’ he laughs.

While the nights James puts on focus mainly on professional comics, he believes there’s more room for the grassroots comics in the city.

‘The Fat Fox is the only real open mic night around at the moment. I do actually think that we could bring more comedy into the city.

‘Pompey’s got a lot of people, I think there’s room for more.’

Joe Wells

Joe Wells

And he thinks the close ties in the scene are instrumental to the recent growth.

‘The worst thing that could happen is that someone who’s not linked to this wonderful network of comedy in the city came in and started up something really big, regularly.

‘In the comedy world, everybody talks to everyone regularly, there’s a lot of loyalty and people know how difficult it is to run a good night properly so they respect that.

‘Pompey’s got a lot of community spirit and I know that a lot of the fans of The Wedge come to Horndean and come to the Spinnaker. But if somebody starts something big that isn’t networked and linked to us all, it would be a shame.’

Another homegrown professional comic, Joe Wells used to run the Havant comedy club at The Spring Arts Centre, but had to give it up because of other demands on his time.

‘To run a comedy club you have to put a lot of time and love into it. It’s sad, but I think we went out with a bang.’

Michael Frankland, co-founder of Funday Sunday at Drift Bar

Michael Frankland, co-founder of Funday Sunday at Drift Bar

One thing he misses are more open mic spots.

‘We did put open spots on. When I start doing comedy eight years ago there were more open spots on professional bills than there are now. Now there’s more of a divide between the professional circuit and the open mic circuit, which is a shame. There are some really good comics coming through who don’t always have the chance to play to that kind of crowd.’

Joe mentions The Wedge, Horndean and The Ashcroft as other local clubs doing good things.

‘People are putting a bit more work into thinking about what they want to see rather than just going to see some comedy.

‘I know that what I do isn’t for everyone, and if you don’t put the work into what you’re going to see you might not end up enjoying yourself.

‘If you go to see a band, you want to know what kind of music it is – I think people are now starting to think the same way about comedy.’

‘You just need some material and a voice’

The Fat Fox comedy club has been running at the Southsea pub for the past couple of years. But it’s only recently that stand-up Matt Roseblade took over stewardship of the night, along with Sunjai Arif, which takes place on the first Wednesday of each month.

‘I did my debut there,’ say Matt, explaining how he came to take up the reins. ‘The guys running the club found out that I lived down the road and so handed over responsibility to me and ran off into the night.’

And he pays tribute to the more experienced members of the scene: ‘Local professional acts such as James Alderson, Joe Wells and Adam Broomfield-Strawn have all been very helpful and inspirational. The comedy community is surprisingly collaborative – we’re all out to help and support one another.’

The night is one of the only ones in the area to offer open mic spots – giving total amateurs the chance to have a crack.

‘Most would describe doing stand-up as their worst nightmare. There is nothing to hide behind and you live or die by your material and delivery. The people who want to try it and those who are successful at it are almost never the alpha-male types. Instead, it’s the shyer, thoughtful types who are stepping up to have a go.

‘We try to debut a new, local act every month. In fact, we have two debutantes in September – both aged over 50. Stand-up is a very low-risk, low-cost mid-life-crisis activity.’

‘Anyone who fancies giving it a try should contact the Comedy at the Fat Fox Facebook page or join the Portsmouth Comedy Meetup group on Meetup.

‘All they need is their own, original material and a voice.’

And Matt says the Fat Fox audience won’t heckle you too badly: ‘We’re very nice at the Fat Fox and won’t give you a hard time.’

The Wedgewood Rooms began life as a comedy club

It’s a little-known fact that while the Wedgewood Rooms is renowned for its comedy nights, it actually began life in its current incarnation as a comedy club.

Over the past 25 years, many of the biggest names in comedy have taken to the Albert Road venue’s stage at the start of their careers – from Michael McIntyre to Jo Brand, Lee Evans (supporting Jack Dee) and Bill Bailey.

The Wedge’s owner Geoff Priestley explains: ‘The intention was not for it to be a live music venue – the people who started The Wedge in its current form took over the lease and started it as a comedy club. But at the same time there wasn’t really anywhere for live music in the city, so there were people looking for somewhere to do that stuff. Then The Wedge appeared and it mutated from there.’

The Wedge plays host to touring comedy acts, but also has its regular comedy club every other Friday.

‘Touring comedians are like touring bands, so they tend to have a bit of a fan club, or people will spot them on TV. We’ve had enormous names come through as touring acts. But we’ve also had what are now big names through the comedy club on Friday nights – Dara O’Briain, Jason Manford, Russell Howard, Josh Widdicombe, Romesh Ranganathan – they’ve all been one of the three names on that bill.’

While Geoff sees stand-up’s popularity as moving in waves, he has a theory as to its current popularity: ‘In difficult economic times, I think people need a laugh. I think it’s as simple as that.

‘People search things out more, and then people will put more things on. It’s very much supply and demand.

‘If life’s hacking you off and things are a bit stressful, then what better to do on a Friday night than to go out for a bit of a giggle?’

It’s time for Funday Sundays at Drift Bar

Last month saw the arrival of a new player on the comedy club circuit, with the arrival of Funday Sunday at The Drift Bar in Palmerston Road, Southsea.

Michael Frankland is the co-founder of the night.

He says: ‘It’s something me and my best friend Perry Reilly have always talked about doing, but then nothing ever happened. I started doing more gigs around the south and the opportunity presented itself because we knew the guy who does the entertainment side of things at Drift. We pitched it to him and he gave us last month as a trial run. If it did well, then we could turn it into a regular thing - fortunately for us, it did.

‘We didn’t do badly, we ran out of places for people to sit.

‘I’ve done a lot of gigs in a lot of different places and I’ve done enough where it’s done wrong. You go to some places where you get people to host nights, purely for their own stage show, and I don’t think that’s right for a comedy club. I wanted to put the emphasis on the acts.

‘When I’m MCing, of course I do my own jokes and have a banter with the audience, but I don’t want to hog the stage.

Michael initially tried stand-up in his late teens, but stopped after he became frustrated by the lack of local opportunities.

‘I stopped because there was nothing really in Portsmouth. At the time I didn’t drive, I couldn’t afford to get the train into London for a free five-minute spot, which is also one of the reasons I thought I’d do my own night.’

‘There are a lot of local people trying to get into comedy, and things have got a lot better recently.

‘Considering we’re all sort of in competition, the other local comics are surprisingly supportive. It’s not a bitchy scene.’

Matt Roseblade of the Fat Fox comedy Club

Matt Roseblade of the Fat Fox comedy Club